Since its formation as a one-day, mom-and-pop music festival to raise money for families affected by autism, the annual Maumee-based event known as Acoustics for Autism has blossomed into one of northwest Ohio’s most enduring acts of compassion.
It’s become living proof that Toledo-area musicians — like those in other parts of the country — can rally people around a noble, grassroots cause.
Equally as important, though, they’ve kept people interested.
With its 10th annual show a week from today, Acoustics for Autism will enter a double-digit era of exposure and success for a fund-raiser that was originally planned as just a one-time show. A follow-up to Project iAm’s original benefit CD is expected to be released at this year’s event, which begins at noon March 5 and lasts 14 hours.
The 10-year mark is an important milestone to groups that do benefits.
“It means it’s sustainable,” said Scott Hayes, the drummer for one of the founding groups, Arctic Clam. “If you don’t deliver, it won’t last 10 years. It shows the instincts on the need were right.”
Tom “Sully” Sullivan, a doorman, worker, and general jack-of-all-trades at the Village Idiot, where the event began, said Acoustics for Autism is now one of Maumee’s biggest events, behind the Fourth of July fireworks and the Christmas parade, in large part because of how widely it’s been embraced by the local music community.
“Band people are like mafia,” Mr. Sullivan said. “The amount of people is unbelievable.”
To understand why Acoustics for Autism succeeds, one needs to understand the heart and soul of its co-founder and chief caretaker, Nicole Khoury, a 39-year-old South Toledo woman, Bowsher High School Athletic Hall of Fame member, and daughter of a Syrian immigrant. She owns a private law practice and is employed by courts in Maumee and Sylvania as a part-time public defender.
When she’s not in her business suit citing case law and defending clients before a judge, Ms. Khoury often can be found wielding an ax on a stage as Arctic Clam’s lead guitarist and vocalist.
“I don’t know how she does it. But with her energy, she just goes and goes and goes,” said Maumee City Prosecutor John Arnsby, who employed her as an intern and temporary secretary before she became a lawyer. “I think she really likes to help people. There’s only one Nicole, that’s for sure.”
Mr. Hayes called Ms. Khoury “the force of nature that is Nicole.”
“She’s got more energy in her little finger than most people do in their whole body,” he said. “She has a drive like nobody I’ve ever seen.”
Alan Konop, the lead defense attorney in one of Toledo’s highest-profile cases, the 2006 conviction of the late Father Gerald Robinson for a nun’s brutal slaying 20 years earlier, said Ms. Khoury impressed him as an intern in his office and as a researcher for that case.
“She has a real heart,” Mr. Konop said. “Her energy is boundless. She’s always had a great deal of drive.”
Though Ms. Khoury is known for having a sweet, never-say-die spirit, she is anything but sappy. She often talks in a blunt, no-nonsense tone.
“She’s brutally frank. Not everyone likes to hear that. She doesn’t sugarcoat it,” Mr. Hayes said. “She’ll never lie to a potential client about what might happen. She puts everything she has into every one of her cases.”
Ms. Khoury got her sense of competition from athletics.
While at Bowsher, she excelled in volleyball and was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2013.
The oldest of four girls in her family, she was voted most likely to succeed by her Bowsher classmates, was in the school’s honors choir, was president of the student council, played piano, and was in the school’s Spanish club, among other activities. She graduated in 1995.
“I was that person who was always involved,” Ms. Khoury said.
She said she was uneasy when she made her first campus visit to Hillsdale College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree.
“It was small and pretty. But I remember thinking to myself there are way too many rich people here. I’m just a public school product,” Ms. Khoury said, proud of her middle-class roots.
But she was sold on Hillsdale when it brought in former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to speak in the fall of 1994.
Ms. Khoury graduated from Hillsdale a semester early in 1998, then got her law degree from the University of Toledo in 2001. She became licensed to practice in Michigan and Ohio in 2002 and, with her father’s encouragement, embarked on a law career.
She originally wanted to be a dancer. Now, she dreams of someday becoming a trial judge.
Ms. Khoury is the lead person behind Project iAm, the nonprofit that organizes Acoustics for Autism.
She does most of the planning and organizing from the computer at her home, assigning tasks to a growing corps of volunteers.
The idea for a fund-raiser began at a bar in 2007 when Ms. Khoury and another musician, Dave Carpenter, brainstormed ways they could help families affected by autism. Like many people, Ms. Khoury was close to some parents who struggled to meet costs of treatments and therapies for their autistic children.
The first Acoustics for Autism event took place March 9, 2008, with 17 bands at the Village Idiot. This year, there will be five stages and 55 bands spread across multiple venues.
“It’s still run out of my house. It’s still 100 percent volunteer-based,” Ms. Khoury said.
There’s no cover charge. Ms. Khoury said she wants to keep the event as affordable as possible for everyone. She wants nothing to do with $300-a-plate dinners at banquet halls.
“I want everyone to feel they can come and support a cause whether they donate $5 or $10,000,” Ms. Khoury said. “That’s the goal: for everyone to feel happy for one day. I never thought when we did it the first time it would become what it’s become. I thought people would eventually get — well — bored by it.”
The events are on Sundays, when many musicians have time off. About $132,000 of the money raised through the events has been distributed to families over the past decade through an application-only process, with an undisclosed amount kept for operations.
Maumee Municipal Court Judge Gary Byers is no stranger to the dual lifestyle of practicing law and playing music. He doesn’t play nightclubs like Ms. Khoury’s band does but has been singing and strumming his acoustic guitar on Fridays for local elementary schoolchildren for many years.
He is one of many public officials who have embraced Acoustics for Autism, doing a 45-minute show in the children’s area.
“I like the community piece of it. You’re bringing in not only the Maumee community but the music community and the county as a whole,” Judge Byers said.
He described Ms. Khoury’s courtroom demeanor as “mildly controlled mania.”
“Nicole’s a talented lawyer. She’s quick on her feet,” Judge Byers said. “She can prioritize which cases need the most attention.”
He said she takes that tenacity and drive on stage as the lead singer of Arctic Clam.
“It’s an edgy performance,” the judge said, explaining how it’s not something many lawyers could do after a long day at work. “Just thinking about it exhausts me. It’s one thing for me to sing with first-graders; it’s another to have a gig until 2 a.m.”
In the weeks after last year’s Acoustics for Autism event, Ms. Khoury was on the receiving end of compassion and empathy. While in the Silent Auction Tent, she stepped into a large dip in the pavement and sat through the rest of the fund-raiser in a wheelchair with her foot taped.
The next day, at the doctor’s office, she learned she had a bad break of her tibia, fibula, and ankle that required surgery and 14 screws. She was unable to walk or put weight on it for four months, though she was back in the courtroom doing her public defender duties from a wheelchair within a couple of weeks.
She said she is grateful for the support of her large group of friends, who did anything from run errands for her to help pay down some of her medical bills with an online crowdfunding campaign.
“An army rallied behind me to get me through it,” Ms. Khoury said.
She doesn’t apologize for having an altruistic view of the world.
“I don’t know how to say it, but I have a bleeding soul. And it runs me ragged,” she said. “Is that a bad thing? No.”
She laughs when asked if people ever encourage her to slow down.
“Every day,” she said. “Every day, about 50 times a day. It’s not in my nature. It’s just who I am.”
The 10th annual Acoustics for Autism begins noon March 5 in downtown Maumee. It lasts 14 hours and features 55 bands. There is no cover charge.
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